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Prairie 'terroir-ists' cook up a radical plot Add to ...

Next month the Métis community of Saskatchewan will mark the 125th anniversary of the Northwest Resistance (a.k.a. the Riel Rebellion) with Back to Batoche, an eight-day cultural celebration on the site of the historic battle that cut short Canada's first francophone secession movement.

But after the tents are rolled up and the visitors decamp, what future awaits the Métis and the rest of the province's francophones? Both their language and the culture they'll be celebrating are under siege.

The Fransaskoise now number 50,000, a mere fraction of Saskatchewan's population of almost a million, and their presence is visible only in a few French-speaking pockets.

After the Second World War, the rise of industrial farming sparked an exodus to the city that respected no language barrier, says Michel Dubé, president of the Assemblée Communautaire Fransaskoise (ACF). "Our assimilation rates for francophones," he explains, "are 75 per cent."

But if food production has been part of the problem for prairie francophones, it also may offer a solution.

An innovative program is being developed for the Batoche area north of Saskatoon, where French is still spoken in several communities north of Saskatoon. Its aim is not only to revitalize rural Saskatchewan but to preserve its unique heritage in the process.

THE TASTE OF PLACE

Mr. Dubé and his wife Josée Bourgoin raise bison on their ranch an hour from Batoche near Prince Albert. Inspired by farmers in France and the Charlevoix region northeast of Quebec City, they have applied for funding to establish an agricultural "terroir" pilot project to promote locally produced, value-added products and are lobbying to create a provincial centre to promote the concept and drum up business opportunities.

Long associated with wine, goût de terroir is all about the soil. It's the taste of place - how the grass livestock feed on, the climate of a given region and the small-batch procedures farmers use all combine to create an authentic-tasting product, whether it's artisanal cheese, bison pâté or syrup derived from saskatoon berries.

The concept appeared on Mr. Dubé's radar four years ago during a trip abroad he made for the ACF. "When we told our colleagues in France that our small communities were depopulating and losing their French heritage," he recalls, "they suggested we talk to farmer André Valadier."

It has been almost 50 years since Mr. Valadier found himself caught up in rural France's battle with many of the problems now plaguing Saskatchewan: depopulation, loss of culture and global competition. He was president of a co-op whose members made Laguiole, a cheese developed centuries ago in a mountain monastery. They were afraid that modern mass production had doomed their tradition and their way of life.

Certain that its terroir is what made the cheese special, Mr. Valadier decided it also could be Laguiole's salvation. So he persuaded the French government to assign it an appellation d'origine controllée (AOC), meaning that only residents of a specific region using milk from certain breeds of cattle could produce it.

The tactic was a huge success, Laguiole has become a symbol of the food renaissance in rural France and now, a half-century later, Mr. Valadier feels a similar approach will pay off for Saskatchewan.

He visited the province in January, 2007, and toured Mr. Dubé's ranch. Looking out at a herd of the massive animals so closely identified with the turbulent history of the West - and its aboriginal and Métis people - he declared: "These bison are your terroir ... This is your starting point."

NEXT GENERATION

The hope now is that, just as the AOC designation has allowed small-scale French farmers to stay on the land and make a living, something similar in Saskatchewan can do that and more - help the Fransaskoise retain their language and customs.

"I could have lived in the city," Mr. Dubé says. Instead, he made a conscious decision to stay close to his roots - as did Terry Boyer, who 13 years ago, reclaimed his Métis heritage when he and wife Susan Burke moved 125 kilometres from Melfort back to the Batoche area, where he'd been raised.

He still commutes to work in the city as a youth counsellor, but the family now lives on a verdant expanse beside the South Saskatchewan River - a parcel of the "scrip land" that was given to Métis families to compensate for the grievances that led to the 1885 uprising.

He is interested in the terroir project less for him and his wife than for his 10-year-old daughter. "We aren't going to grow professionally ourselves," he explains. "I'm getting past the age where I want to start a farm.

"But we're mindful of our daughter's future. Kate inherited her grandfather's land. Terroir could give her the opportunity to stay on the land."

In April, young Kate and her parents were part of a 21-member delegation sent to inspect the terroir project's classic Canadian role model. For three days, they explored tiny holdings, ate gourmet meals and took notes during a fast-paced tour of Charlevoix conducted completely in French.

"It's all about the quality," recalls Ms. Burke as she pours herbal tea made from sea buckthorn harvested from the family's organic garden. "In Charlevoix, the farmer raises the grain to feed his chickens. He tracks the lifecycle of the food and he won't compromise the quality. There's integrity in small batches."

The Quebeckers produce cheese and lamb to exacting standards - in fact, theirs is the only district in North America with government standards tailor-made for its lamb products. An official indication géographique protégée (IGP) attests that "agneau de Charlevoix" has been produced in the region and will exhibit qualities unique to that region.

By adopting the Charlevoix model, the Saskatchewan terroir advocates hope they can charge higher prices for higher-quality goods, thus turning small-batch production to a blessing from a curse. Unlike feedlot-raised cattle, "our bison herd is free-range," explains Josée Bourgoin, "so we see the market potential of terroir."

She also sees the market potential in the way Charlevoix has "merged aesthetics with hospitality," fostering the growth of agri-tourism, another valuable revenue stream for small producers.

Of course, any new venture is subject to competing interests, and the francophone community, while it speaks one language, hasn't always spoken with one voice.

Mr. Boyer says that he is pleased to see the Métis included in the pilot project, but warns that, "if the Métis people even get a whiff of exclusion" by the organizers, "they'll reject the premise."

The venture also faces some practical obstacles: How well will "small is beautiful" took root in a vast province renowned for large-scale production? Can it bridge the long distances between sparsely populated towns?

The concept certainly seems better suited to smaller regions, says the University of Vermont's Amy Trubek, a cultural anthropologist and food expert whose book, The Taste of Place (University of California Press, 2008), traces terroir's social impact.

Her own state, she says, is quite unlike Saskatchewan. Forested, hilly and just a tiny fraction of the prairie province's size, "we couldn't go to large-scale agriculture in Vermont, so we didn't," she says, Instead, a successful terroir campaign arose, propelled by "the huge influence of the back-to-the-land movement and a unique product" - maple syrup.

Other regions can try to do the same, Prof. Trubek says, as long as they meet two critical requirements: Participants must work together and stiff regulations (like the lamb labelling in Charlevoix) must be instituted.

'HOOK, LINE, SINKER'

Even, so there are skeptics.

"Do lamb chops from Québec really taste much better?" asks Michael Gertler, a specialist in the sociology of agriculture at the University of Saskatoon.

" We need to try and figure out whose interests are served here," he says, warning that claims for the benefits of terroir can be exaggerated. "People don't have to swallow it hook, line and sinker."

Prof. Gertler concedes that "terroir offers slow food, sustainable food and product differentiation," but asks consumers to remember "local means different things to different places," noting that "critics call it 'terroir-ism.'"

Leaders of the "terroirists" see things differently, of course, but they don't argue with the fact that the marketplace will be judge and jury.

"All we're asking is that people try our bison products," Mr. Dube says."Don't automatically reach for that hamburger patty in the supermarket freezer when you can have fresh, local and free-range meat."

Patricia Dawn Robertson is a Saskatchewan journalist.

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